The feeling of spring

Primroses

Primroses

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.

Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.

They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Daffodils

Daffodils

The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.

Cowslips

Cowslips

Ladybird on the edge of a leaf

Ladybird on the Edge

Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.

Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.

Robin Feeding Young

Robin Feeding Young

This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine

Comma Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly – shame about the background but lovely butterfly all the same.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

A Day with the Tree Surgeons

First tree showing weak area

The first tree showing the weak area

Yesterday, we had Mike Daniels and his team from Arborcare, come to the woods to deal with two large oaks. Both of these needed to be pollarded for safety. It was a privilege to spend the day with these lovely guys, watching them at work.

The first tree had a branch fall off leaving a large scar a few years ago. This was healing, until it was seriously eroded by hornets, leaving a very unstable situation with a heavy branch on a weak base. The other branch of the tree had a crack (not easily visible). Both branches were overhanging a path used by visitors, so something had to be done. The aim was to preserve the tree and the habitat, but make it safer.

The second tree was again, very hollow and weak, and overhanging a path. We tried moving the path but it didn’t work out, so the tree needed reducing. This second tree may not survive, but it will remain as standing dead wood and fantastic hollow habitat for birds.

None of the brash was wasted: most of the holly brash from our coppicing, together with all the brash from this pollarding work was chipped to surface our paths. The rest was left as habitat piles.

Brash chipping going on the path

Brash chipping going on the path

I am totally in awe of people who can do this wonderful work. The photos show some of the process and the skill involved.

Our thanks to Mike, Paul, and John from Arborcare, and to Keith, who turned up to help us. We were all working flat out all day – I was helping to cut up the branches cut down and stack the logs and brash, and the others were chipping the massive pile of brash and delivering it to our paths.

A wonderful day.

At work high above the ground

At work high above the ground

Removing a branch

Removing a branch

Removing the top of the tree

Removing the top of the tree

A new pollarded oak

A new pollarded oak

Climbing the adjacent tree

Climbing the sound tree next to the weak one that will be pollarded

Swinging across

Swinging across

Phew!

Phew!

Cutting more branches

Cutting more branches

Gradually cutting back

Gradually cutting back

All done, and Mike lets himself down on the rope

All done, and Mike lets himself down on the rope

Wonderful Winter Sunsets

Pink Clouds and Glowing Trees

Sunset from the edge of our woods

Dark and glowing clouds as dusk falls

Dark and glowing clouds as dusk falls

The first frosts have been late this year, but winter seems to have arrived at last, and with it comes the wonderful, clear and low light that casts eerie shadows within the woods and across the landscape, and brings those amazing sunsets that simply don’t occur during summer.

We’ve been gifted with a few beautiful sunsets over the last few days.  The first came while we were working away cutting up, moving and stacking logs from a willow tree that had fallen into our neighbour’s field.  It was an absolutely miserable, rainy, drizzly, damp day.  But as we were walking back up from repairing the fence with some dead-hedging and stakes, the cold front finally passed, and a sunset started to happen.  I always have a camera, even if working, and I put my little EOS-M to good work along the edge of the woods, capturing the light, clouds, colours and shapes of sunset.

Yesterday, I had to take a few photos of trees on which we are planning to have tree surgery work done later during the winter.  Because our woods has a Tree Preservation Order on it, we have to submit an application for this work to the Council, supported by photos.  While I was there, I could sense the light getting better and better for photography.  First there was the sun-dog or false rainbow caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight.  Then there were the golden leaves remaining on the birch trees, backlit by the setting sun.  Finally there was the cold wait by our entrance as the sun started to set opposite.  Subtle colours, and few clouds, but spectacular none the less.  Although I guess a few passing motorists wondered why there was a mad woman shivering in a puffa jacket with a camera round her neck by the side of the road!

Low light is the real gift of winter.  It makes this time of year special.

Birch trees glow gold in Betty's Wood

Birch trees glow gold in Betty’s Wood

Sun Dog over Betty's Wood - the rainbow is not a photographic artefact

Sun Dog over Betty’s Wood – the rainbow is not a photographic artefact

Sunset over the hills opposite the woods

Sunset over the hills opposite the woods

The sun setting right opposite our entrance

The sun setting right opposite our entrance as I was leaving.

 

Photographing Insects – my approach

Common blues

Mating pair of common blue butterflies – backlit

I love photographing insects.  Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too.  Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.

Equipment

Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens.  I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro.  I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens.  The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often.  I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily.  The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size.  It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish.  The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed.  The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is.  It is also harder to hand-hold.

A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake.  I don’t do this for three reasons.  First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good.  Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it.  Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint.  You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold.  Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.

The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures.  Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.

Southern hawker

Southern hawker dragonfly by our pond

Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.

Learn how to approach

The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!).  They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell.  You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them.  I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes.  It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush.  It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth.  Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind.  It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera.  It is worth practising this  without taking photos, until you can do it well.

Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.

Viewpoint and Background

Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that.  However you really do need to think more about it than that.  What viewpoint do you want?  Which bit of the insect do you want to feature?  Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect?  Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings?  This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly – dark damselfly, bright background

Likewise, how do you want the background to appear?  Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail?  Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour?  When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background.  Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor).  A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly in meadow


Lighting

Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging.  Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.

Common darter dragonfly

Common darter dragonfly on a cane


Exposure

Getting exposure right can be challenging.  You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting.  It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera.  This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision.  This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it.  As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust.  You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.

Banded Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle – challenging exposure!

Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge:  butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure.  Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing.  Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).

Male common blue showing iridescence

Male common blue showing iridescence


Learn to see the picture in your head

Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it.  Visualise what you want to see.  What details do you want to see?  How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal?  How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture?    How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark?  Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on?  How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes?  Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed?  How do you want the viewer to feel?  How do YOU feel?  Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?

Common darter shelters from the rain

Common darter on willow leaf, sheltering from the rain


You may disagree

This is my approach.  Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach.  It works for me.  In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win.  I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners.  Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.

Common darter in oak tree

Common darter in oak tree

Haymaking – the Video

Our second year of making hay from our meadows at Alvecote Wood. Five days of very hard work, but very lucky with the weather. We got 153 bales this year (141 last year) and sold and delivered it all to the stables next door to the woods.

This is a video of the whole process. It gives you an idea of what we have been doing over the past few days.

Can insects be cute?

Damselfly on vetch

Damselfly on vetch

The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects?  I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.

Damselfly on vetch

It’s MINE – damselfly plays hide and seek, clinging on to vetch flower

Interact with insects?  Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them?  Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper

Butterflies, too, can interact.  Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you.  If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off.  If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.

Meadow brown butterfly on daisy

Meadow brown

Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them.  Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!

We did it again – best in England

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

A year ago, I reported that Alvecote Wood won the Royal Forestry Society competition for the best small woodland in the Midlands and North West of England, something that was honestly beyond anything we had dreamed of when we bought the woods in 2007.

https://alvecotewood.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/alvecote-wood-is-top-of-the-tree/

In 2014, all the previous winners and runners-up were entered into a champion of champions competition to find the Best of England, and we were entered in the small woodland category.  As the judges had visited us last year, we weren’t visited again but other woodlands were visited, to see what they had done in the meantime.  We had not stood still either – this winter we extended our coppice into the edge of Betty’s Wood to revive the hedge, increase light in the lower woodlands, and remove some very large holly that was blocking the light.  All of this should help regeneration in an area previously showing very little.  We also put up a QR code trail in the woodland so that visitors could use smartphones to scan the codes, bring up a web page with information about that location, with links to activities for all the family.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

At the weekend, we heard that we had won, and we are now officially the best small woodland in the whole of England!  We started from very humble beginnings, but tried to take a professional approach to ensuring that the site became as valuable as possible for wildlife, as quickly as possible.  We were novices, and we are still learning all the time.  To be acknowledged by experts in the field is a real surprise, and gives us the confidence to move forward, always with advice and help, to ensure our woodland is a resource for generations to come.

Read more about the Royal Forestry Society competition and this year’s winners using the link below.

http://rfs.org.uk/node/1193

You can also read our story, from the Quarterly Journal of Forestry (pdf) here

The value of ponds

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

If you want to improve the biodiversity of a piece of land, one of the best things you can do is put in a pond.  We are lucky that our woods are damp, there is water flowing through them, and they have a clay soil base which is eminently suitable for ponds.  We started out with one pond that was badly-designed and silted-up.  As part of our programme to improve the site for wildlife, and to rationalise the drainage, we put in three brand new ponds in the upper part of the woods, and divided the old pond into three new ponds, terraced along the ditch.  The first pond is a silt trap and the remaining ponds now keep free from silt, and drain properly back into the ditch.

Broad-bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

Female Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

When we had the opportunity to buy Betty’s Wood and plant it with trees, we also added ponds – it was a very suitable field, with lots of damp patches and a base of both red and white pottery clay.  There were already some natural ponds formed in tractor ruts, and we added 5 more ponds in a cluster.  This means we have 11 ponds on site, in three clusters.  There is another pond which is more of a pit that gets damp in winter – but these temporary ponds are also very valuable habitat.  All of them were put where a pond would naturally want to form, in areas that were already damp.  None of them are artificially lined – the clay keeps the water in place.  Some of them dry out in the summer, others stay wet.  All are connected so that wildlife has a refuge in the deeper water if needed.

Grass Snake

Grass Snake in our ponds

We were rewarded in the first year with a few dragonflies and damselflies.  As time has gone on, our ponds have brought more life to the woods.  The range of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, helped by the fact that we are adjacent to other pools and ponds, a canal and a river.  Birds regularly come and drink in the ponds.  We have a good population of toads and smooth newts, together with a few frogs.  We have some resident mallard who come back each year although are yet to breed successfully.  Last year we had a pair of lapwing in Betty’s Wood.  We have an increasing population of grass snakes who love to swim in the ponds and bask on their banks.  Swallows swoop down to feed on the insects that breed in the ponds.  Last year we had a Hobby, which likes to feed on dragonflies.  Mammal tracks show that all our resident mammals drink at the ponds – muntjac, badger, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, stoats.  Insects also come to drink at the ponds, particularly butterflies, bees and wasps.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Yellow flag-iris

Yellow flag-iris

Around the ponds are wet areas, in which we get wonderful plants – cowslip, buttercups, snakes head fritillary and a growing area with southern marsh orchid.  As well as the usual sedges, reeds, rushes, flag iris, ragged robin, teasel and figwort.

Ponds bring a place to life, and putting them in was one of the best things we have done for wildlife at the woods.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Hairy Dragonfly

Hairy Dragonfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Blue on Blue – Down among the bluebells

We have the most fantastic display of bluebells at the woods every year, and every year it is a little bit different. This year we didn’t have a cold winter, and so the brambles did not die back in our main bluebell patch. In consequence, the bluebells in that area are not so good, but in other areas they are surprisingly good.

All our bluebells are English native bluebells. There are probably getting on for a million of them at the woods, and it is quite amazing how they differ in form but also in colour, ranging from an extraordinary deep purple-blue, through all shades of blue, some even with a touch of turquoise, to very pale blue. We even have one pink English bluebell, and one or two white English bluebells.

How do we know that they are English bluebells Hyacyinthoides non-scripta and not Spanish? Well, our bluebells all have narrow leaves, most are bent over at the top, rather than standing tall, they have long narrow flowers with recurved petals, and they have white or cream coloured pollen. Spanish bluebells have broader leaves, stand up tall, have wider flowers with non-recurved petals and tend to have blue pollen.

It is difficult to capture the feeling of being in and among the bluebells on camera. Simple images don’t do justice to the intensity of the blueness, nor do they really capture the delicate beauty of these flowers.

There is nothing for it but to get down and get dirty in the mud. I tend to photograph bluebells lying on the ground, where I can get good support for the camera. I try not to disturb other bluebells, and this does limit my ability to get good angles sometimes. I try to use selective depth of field. Depending on how far the subject is from the background, I use f stops somewhere between 4.0 and 8.0, and always my Canon 100mm macro lens. I also try to get a good background clear of clutter – either with bokeh from the light coming through the trees, or a clear dark or light background. Exposure can be anywhere from +2 to -2 stops, and compensation is really important in the dappled light of the woods. Finally, post processing is important to capture the feeling of being among the bluebells – I generally use Lightroom to tweak the curve and get the result I am looking for.

I feel very privileged to have such a wonderful selection of these beautiful flowers to choose from, despite that fact that I am allergic to them and they give me heroic doses of hay fever whenever I try to photograph them! Bluebells are common in Britain, but rare worldwide.

If you would like to help survey bluebells in Britain, and to see the extent to which non-native and hybrid bluebells have spread, please fill in the Natural History Museum survey http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/british-natural-history/survey-bluebells/ – anybody can do this, and it will be of great help.

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Vivid Blue bluebells

Vivid Blue

An unusual pale mottled bluebell

An unusual pale mottled bluebell

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

Down among the bluebells

White English Bluebell

White English Bluebell

Bluebell in a patch of sunlight

Bluebell in a patch of sunlight

Monochrome Bluebell

Monochrome Bluebell

Pink English bluebell

Very rare pink English bluebell

Open Evenings

Seven-spot ladybird

On the Edge!

During the Summer months our woods are open on Wednesday evenings for visitors between 6 and 8pm.  One of the good things about this is the lovely light that we get across our meadows at this time in the evening.  Indeed, the woods are aligned such that the evening light is much more compelling than the morning light in most places.

Last night we opened for the first time this year, and were really lucky with the light, which was perfect for wildflowers and insects alike.  These are a few photos that I took last night, and also on a couple of other evenings during the week.  We had lots of visitors last night and I am hoping that the open evenings prove to be popular again this year.  We don’t charge for entrance, so if you want to come along, please do!

Cowslip

Cowslip

Red Campion

Red Campion

First Bluebells

First Bluebells

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort

Red Campion

Red Campion

Love in the Grass - lily beetles on snakes head fritillary

Love in the Grass – lily beetles on snakes head fritillary

Green-veined whites

Green-veined whites – mating pair

Greater Stitchwort

Greater Stitchwort